Nine-Day Trek Across A Strange, Soggy Land
EVERGLADES CITY, FLA.
We begin at 7:01 a.m. with a slight breeze in our faces and the entire width of the Florida Everglades stretching before us in the morning light.Skip to next paragraph
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It takes 90 minutes to paddle our two aluminum canoes from the ranger station at Everglades City to the Turner River. Water gurgles at our bows, and we feel the pull of the tide drawing us into the brown-and-green mosaic of mangroves, vines, and dark water that locals call simply "the backcountry."
Behind us, the houses on Chokoloskee Island slip away as we begin our trip into one of America's most forbidding wildernesses. Our trek coincides with the 50th anniversary of this national park's dedication.
Here alligators and crocodiles reign at the top of the food chain. The murky, tannin-stained water is the color of Coca-Cola. Dry land is so scarce between campsites that any delay means we'll be sleeping in our canoes.
"That's the last bit of civilization we'll see for at least a week," I tell Monitor photographer Bob Harbison. He glances back toward Chokoloskee, his paddle hovering momentarily above the water. I wonder if he is having second thoughts.
Over the next nine days we would paddle more than 117 miles across southwest Florida, through the heart of Everglades National Park. There are no roads in or out. For mile after mile there is only saw grass, mangrove, and water in a landscape that has remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years.
This is what south Florida looked like during the time of Jesus, when the Calusa Indians fished these waters and hunted deer in the grassland. It is the same scenery Juan Ponce de Len saw in 1513 when he sailed up Florida's southwest coast in search of gold, slaves, and potential farmland.
As for us, we came not so much to rack up mileage as to experience this wilderness. We wanted to celebrate the mystery and magnificence of the region by moving through it as quietly and unobtrusively as possible. Powered only by our arms and paddles, we left behind nothing more than the echo of a camera shutter, a little carbon dioxide, and a slight ripple across the water.
Green pastures and still waters
Fifty years ago, President Harry S. Truman came here to turn 1.5 million acres of wilderness into what is now the nation's third-largest national park. On Dec. 6, 1947, President Truman dedicated the park in an act aimed at preserving forever what he termed "an irreplaceable primitive area."
Tomorrow - Dec. 6, 1997 - the park will be rededicated at Everglades City in a ceremony to be attended by Vice President Al Gore.
In his speech, Truman spoke of the nation's parks as being important not only because they preserve and protect our natural history. National parks, he said, are also places for "conservation of the human spirit ... where we may be more keenly aware of our Creator's infinitely varied, infinitely beautiful, and infinitely bountiful handiwork."
Facing Chokoloskee Bay and the Everglades beyond it, Truman added, "Here we can truly understand what the Psalmist meant when he sang: 'He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.''
Civilization gone, only nature now
At 11 a.m. our canoes enter Sunday Bay and cross a point in the backcountry beyond which I have never before traveled. As for Bob, he's been around the world many times over on Monitor assignments, but this is his first trip to Florida, let alone to the darkest corners of the Everglades.
As we head across Sunday Bay, the slight breeze disappears and the water is smooth as glass. Every sound is magnified. Drips from a paddle blade sound like a mountain brook. The sky is powder blue with suspended cotton puffs. The clouds and surrounding mangrove are reflected perfectly in the surface of the bay. The day has become so still it seems almost a surreal dream, as if we are paddling through a watercolor painting.